Monday, February 15, 2021


alone, in a small house

Sending a little Valentine's Day love, a day late.  As if individual days matter much, right now.  The pandemic inches along.  Each day feels eerily the same.  Awaken, feed Hodge breakfast, see Ryan off to work, if he has to be in his office instead of here at home, brush my teeth, wash my face, roll out the yoga mat.  Experience a few moments of peace and spaciousness, if I'm lucky.  Shower, dress, make my own breakfast, determine the scope of work for the day.  Water the plants.  Fill the woodbox.  Take out the compost.  Keep up with minor housework.  Make sure our groceries are holding steady.  Putter in my studio.  Make an effort in the morning to make definite progress of some kind, any kind, with my projects, then have lunch, continue with work, and then set everything else aside and read in the late afternoon, or get outside again, if it's not too cold.  I'm doing my best to keep my spirits up, in any way possible, but whew it's difficult, in the depths of winter, in the times we are in.  To say I am looking forward to being eligible for vaccination is an understatement.  Around here, we are months away.

Let's not dwell on that unfortunate circumstance.  There's no point.  Here's a Thoreau update.  And my current stack of reading and just-finished books:

My winter reading project, as it stands today, is this:  I'm seventy-five pages in to Volume Seven of the Journal, which is not very far along, considering that last time I mentioned the Journal was a month ago, and I was in the middle of Volume Six.  However, I stopped reading the Journal, read my copy of Walden, then read the recent biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press 2017), then read Thoreau's Letters to a Spiritual Seeker edited by Bradley P. Dean (Norton 2004), then read the New Riverside edition of Thoreau's Familiar Letters edited by F.B. Sanborn (Houghton Mifflin 1894).  I also read the chapter about Sophia Thoreau in Little-Known Sisters of Well-Known Men by Sarah G. Pomeroy (Dana Estes 1912), along with some of the other lives of women described therein, during which I had to grit my teeth and clench my jaw from time to time, over the so-called noble sacrifices made by and helpmeet status of nineteenth-century women.  I am now embarking upon the two late Thoreau manuscript fragments reassembled and edited by Bradley P. Dean, Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (Island Press 1993), and Wild Fruits (Norton 2000).  There is a lot I could say about each of these books, and goodness knows I've taken my usual copious notes as I've been reading them.

Walden, to start with.  I'm glad I didn't read it when I was younger.  To come to a classic like this with fresh eyes, and no real preconceived notions about much of anything, other than a willingness to be pleased, because I've been enjoying his Journal so much, was a good way to experience the book as a whole.  The beginning is such a rant, it was unexpected.  In fact the entire book is kind of a rant, I mean a real diatribe!  The sections I love best are those in which he slows down, sets his judgments about society and his neighbors aside, and describes his life experience in loving ways, as a painter might.  Luckily these sections are plentiful.  His descriptions of communing with nature, and coming to know the divine in nature, are achingly beautiful.  The narrative as a whole is much less of a nuts-and-bolts kind of book than I thought it would be.  Yes, the details are there, about how he builds his house by Walden Pond, and what it cost him, and how he earns his living, and what he eats, and who comes to visit.  But the life philosophy he espouses is the overarching story.  And I love how he describes having lived in a certain way, then he sets that time aside as if to commemorate it, and writes from another place, years into his own future, while looking back toward his earlier courage and innocence.

There are gorgeous thoughtful passages all throughout Walden, and famous snippet after famous snippet, but these few pages about him remembering his own past in his house by the pond - his season of joy - have come to mean a great deal to me, and I even ended up reading this entire section aloud to Ryan one evening, as we were talking anyway about work, and leisure, and the happiness sought and found (or not) therein (pp.123-125):

"I love a broad margin to my life.  Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs.... I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.  They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over my usual allowance.... For the most part, I minded not how the hours went.  The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.  Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.... my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.  It was a drama of many scences and without an end.... Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour."

Go outside!  Stay there!  Pay attention!  Live your daily life as if it is a series of revelations, because it is!  His messages feel as relevant today as they ever were.  They are certainly helping me get through this trying time.  I look out the window after seeing some quick movement from the corner of my eye.  A few days ago, it was a flock of robins, and today a pair of cardinals, in the wild rose bushes behind our house, by the edge of the woods.  Sometimes I walk into those woods, into the cedar swamp, and look around.  Chickadees, crows, places where deer have scraped the ground bare, tracks in the snow: signs of life, everywhere.  They keep me focused on the good, and the present.

I could say a lot more about Walden but it feels superfluous, and so much has already been said, by others, better than I could ever say it.  The Thoreau biography by Laura Dassow Walls is fantastic, I must say, and reads like an engrossing novel.  The ending, about his death, is so moving, and seems to describe some of the grief I've been feeling lately, about the unfinished nature of most of our lives, and the shortness of life in general.  After that, I did take a break from all things Thoreau, to read a few other books, but they ended up feeling like more Walden.  One was Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson (North Point Press 2001), about the author's inheritance and experience of the Shiants.  What a book.  About the deep love of place.  And about a man, alone, in a small house, writing.  I also read a new poetry book, Big Cabin by Ron Padgett (Coffee House Press 2019).  Again, about place and the observations one makes about it, and about a man, alone, in a small house, writing.  I love his poetry so, so much, and this book might be my favorite of his to date.  The cover of the book was designed by Alex Katz:

It really suits my mood right now: inside, looking out; inside, writing, painting, working, wishing, looking out again.  Favorite poems include "Truly," "The Ripple Effect," "A Rowboat of Happiness," "Infusion," and the very short "Haiku" on (p.54):

"First, calm down.
 Next, stay that way
 for the rest of your life."

Big Cabin, Sea Room, and Walden: I'm glad I read all three of these great books after I'd finished writing my own, which is about going to stay on an island, alone, in a small house, to write and paint.  As I mentioned before, for better or worse my book is done (!!!), and I 'm now working on some housekeeping chores associated with it, such as requesting permission for all the quotes I hope to use within it.  I may not hear back about certain requests for months, but am hoping to print copies of the book in July, after I get my painting shows for the summer squared away, and actually get back outside to paint for a few months too.  Spring, spring!  Where are you; I miss you.  More Thoreau updates to come, as I return to the Journal, and read on, toward the warm seasons.  Take care, friends.

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